Sometimes I really feel like I was born in the wrong half of the country. My sentimental attachments to Michigan, land of my birth, are minimal if my family and friends move elsewhere. The hazy glow of nostalgia will always reserve a spot for the Mitten State in my heart. Nostalgia and this two-foot tall creature who recently learned how to walk: Lydia Rose, my niece. She occupies about half of my heart.
But today I’m not here to gush about how much I love Lydia. I’ll save that for another day. I’m confused about my Northern origins because truthfully, I feel like I should have been born in the South. How else do I explain my fondness for the concept of “Southern hospitality” or Southern men or the idea of sittin’ out on the back porch, drinking mint juleps while someone twangs away on the banjo? Goodness, I even wish I had a Southern accent! In the summertime, I have even been known to pad around in a tube top, but I’m not sure if that says more about my trashiness or my inner Southern chick. Nothing says trashy like a tube top!
Tube tops, mint juleps, and banjoes: that’s the life for me.
A telling sign that I harbor secret Southern longings is the sheer audacity I displayed two months ago. For Christmas, I gave three people copies of a book about that most quintessential of Southern foods, cornbread. How does a Northerner get off giving people a book about cornbread? And to make matters even worse, one of these people is a Southerner, who, if he were loyal to his roots, should put me in my place and tell me that a Northerner ain’t got no business tellin’ anyone anything about cornbread!
But I have no shame; I even served cornbread to this Southerner without batting an eye. He ate it and later asked for the recipe. I was happy to oblige.
This thrice-gifted cookbook is The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon. Her roots are East Coast: she was born in New York and currently resides in Vermont. She did, however, spend most of her adult life in Arkansas, so I think she can reasonably claim some authority when it comes to Southern cooking. I love her because she’s a health-nut hippie who combines the best food writing with great recipes and useful kitchen tips. She’s my kind of woman.
Today I want to share with you the cornbread I make over and over again. It’s an adapted version of Crescent’s Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Buttermilk Cornbread. Since I have no shame (see above) and I will not be denied, I had to adapt this recipe right away to fit my baking equipment. Here I will confess another dirty kitchen secret: I have no cast-iron skillet. While I adore cast-iron skillets, I have yet to invest in my own. Call it laziness or frugality, but I seem to be doing just fine without one. In order to make this cornbread, I swapped out the skillet in favor of my trusty 8-inch square glass baking pan, the one I’ve had since my sophomore year of college and use virtually every week. I am very attached to this pan, as it has assisted my cooking dreams time and again. It’s lasted through two boyfriends, one friend-with-benefits, and one creepy old guy I met on the Internet [shudder]. (Hey, I was young!) It has seen me earn one degree and will likely see me earn my doctorate. I cannot even imagine life without it.
In Crescent’s recipe, butter is melted into the cast-iron skillet on the stovetop, and then the cornbread batter is scraped into the hot skillet (“skillet-sizzled”) and popped into the waiting oven. In my recipe, I melt the butter into the baking pan in the oven, then take it out, scrape the batter into the pan, and put it back into the oven to bake. I have made my version of this cornbread so many times that when I made it the proper way at Thanksgiving last year using the beautiful cast-iron skillet in Daphna and Ian’s kitchen, I felt lost, out of sorts, like I was missing something essential. In truth, that’s what repetition does to a recipe or a method: it becomes your recipe, your method.
Hopefully I don’t offend any diehard Southern cornbread fans with this last confession, but I’m thinking about making—brace yourselves here, folks—a Northern cornbread for my sweet Southern friend when he comes to visit again. I figure if he keeps braving this cold Chicago weather just to spend time in my kitchen, I must be doing something right!
A Northerner’s Butter-Crusted Cornbread
Adapted from Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Cornbread in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon
My version of this cornbread is fairly true to the original with the skillet-to-pan adaptation I described above. I like a slightly sweet cornbread, so I use the maximum recommended amount of sugar. I use the minimum recommended amount of butter and I love the result: a buttery, crunchy, golden-brown crust. Go for the corner pieces on this one if you can because they have two sides of crunchy crust. I wouldn’t turn down a middle piece, though, especially when this bread is hot and fragrant from the oven. Serve with hot chili or soup and consider yourself blessed.
1 c. cornmeal
1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
3 tbsp. brown sugar
1 ¼ c. buttermilk
¼ c. mild vegetable oil, such as canola oil
2 tbsp. butter
1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2) In a large mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Stir well to combine.
3) In a smaller bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Whisk the oil into this mixture.
4) Place the butter in an 8-inch square glass baking dish. Pop it in the oven for a few minutes to melt the butter, checking frequently to swirl the butter around and prevent its burning. It should only take a few minutes at most to melt.
5) Once the butter is melted, take the pan out of the oven and quickly mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients using as few strokes as possible. The goal here is to moisten everything, but don’t overmix the batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.
6) Bake for ~25-30 min. or until nice and golden-brown on top. Serve hot.